Conservative commentators have been suggesting that last night’s townhall debate at Hofstra University was filled with liberal plants, but I fear it was stocked with something more insidious: uncommitted voters.
Last night’s audience could have been brimming with bright, informed citizens who pay attention to daily events and engage in critical thinking about politicians’ claims, but weren’t quite convinced that either candidate would address their concerns.
Instead the audience came off like dazed sleepwalkers who recited their questions off cards as if someone else had handwritten them in crayon.
Thus, we were treated to such penetrating probes as:
Mr. President, I voted for you in 2008, but I’m not sure if I will in 2012. Why is everything I buy so expensive?
President Obama, why don’t women who make different life choices earn the exact same salaries as men?
Governor Romney, are you really George W. Bush in disguise?
We also had this dinger:
“Doesn’t the Laffer Curve predict that lowering marginal federal income tax rates boosts government revenue?”
Just kidding! How will voters who haven’t made up their minds between Reagan Lite and Saul Alinsky, Jr. ever understand the Laffer Curve?
One uncommitted voter ventured, “Mr. President, your energy secretary Steven Chu said it’s not his department’s policy to lower gas prices. Is this true?”
This was actually a rather intelligent question, except that a more informed voter would have asked, “Mr. President, didn’t your energy secretary Steven Chu say it was his department’s policy to raise gas prices ?”
Though I take the debate commission’s word that the audience members were genuinely uncommitted, one of them did submit the aforementioned Bush question. The fact that “Are you Bush?” made the final cut was fortunate for Obama, in that it prevented him from having to sully himself by bringing up the former President. (Just like Hillary took care of Benghazi for him!)
Had the commission selected a more focused audience, Obama would have been too ashamed to shower them with gems like these:
Gas prices have more than doubled under my watch, but that’s because the economy is so much better now.
I don’t look at my pension, because it isn’t as big as Romney’s.
I believe that women are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside.
Certainly a sharper audience wouldn’t have been impressed by Obama’s claim, during the Keystone Pipeline discussion, that “We’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire Earth once!” As Glenn Kessler  notes, “This ‘fact’ is kind of meaningless… [T]he total number of pipelines in 2008 was about 2.38 million miles… Obama’s gain over two years amounts to a little over 1 percent of that total… [T]he bulk of Obama’s gain… came from gas transmission lines [that] require approvals from states and municipalities…” (Meanwhile “uncommitted voters” were busy picturing a friendly planet Earth mascot with a steadily pumping pipeline stretched around its waist like a belt, with Obama looking on approvingly.)
Imagine a townhall debate audience consisting of only committed voters—i.e. ones sharp enough to ask pointed questions that Obama can’t dodge with platitudes and generalities. How much more enlightening would such a debate be? How much more of a disadvantage would such a format pose to the Democratic candidate, the Democratic moderator, and the Democratic media?
In fact, why dumb down the audience at all? Why not feature an audience of economists and terrorism experts and immigration officials instead of soccer moms who can’t remember the three tax deductions that keep them awake at night? (These audience members would have gotten along great with Rick Perry!)
I think if we had had a better-informed audience, then lines like Romney’s modest “I went to the Olympics… to try and get them on track” wouldn’t have gone over the heads of the audience, many of whom may have assumed he was just some minor consultant there. The rest of us know what Romney did in Salt Lake City—but do undecided voters realize that the man spent three years of his life saving the enterprise from collapse for free? Subtlety is not the most effective technique for people who see just a hair’s difference between Obama and Romney.
Had the commission chosen a more with-it audience, Romney could have scored by sprinkling zingers like these throughout his replies:
President Obama has increased the federal debt more in four years than any other president in U.S. history. What would he do if we gave him four more years?
Obama disses ‘folks at the top’ and the ‘well-off.’ Why does he resent wealthy people so much, especially considering that he’s one of them?
The President has been three minutes ahead of me on the clock for most of the debate, yet keeps trying to cut me off. Does he have a fundraiser to catch?
Undoubtedly the smartest of these uncommitted townhall voters was the one who accidentally addressed Romney as “President.” At least her instincts were on point.
Previously published in modified form at Red Alert Politics